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The National Cherry Festival Ambassadors: ‘It’s Like a Big Family Reunion’

The National Cherry Festival kicked off this past weekend. Residents and tourists alike roamed the streets of downtown Traverse City taking in the entertainment, food and variety of cherry goods. The National Cherry Festival is a local icon that the area is known for and it wouldn’t be possible without the Ambassadors.

Ambassadors are the volunteers that work the National Cherry Festival. Many Ambassadors come back to help out at the festival year after year, and many use work vacation days to be able to volunteer. It may seem odd to take time off work to volunteer for a festival where it will be hot, loud and busy, but the Ambassadors are relentless in their dedication to their community, and also in their dedication to each other.

The volunteer kickoff party was this past Thursday and laughs and a feeling of homecoming were abundant in the beer tent where it’s held. Jan Phillips, one of the National Cherry Festival directors, is in charge of feeding all of the Ambassadors.

“The directors see each other all year, but the kickoff party is where everyone is reunited,” Jan said.

I look around and see clusters of little reunions happening all over the place. Ambassadors embrace at the joy of seeing one another for the first time in months, tables of Ambassadors having dinner together sporadically burst into laughter and there isn’t a frowning face in sight.

Patti Lyon says that these Ambassador reunions are one of her favorite parts about being a volunteer.

“It’s great to see all the people that you don’t get to see the rest of the year. A lot of us come back.”

In the middle of dinner, pins are handed out to Ambassadors who have been volunteering for a considerable amount of time. Pins from five years to 50 years are handed out and there are Ambassadors accepting pins from all walks of life.

Marilyn Vogel is introducing her granddaughter Summer Harrison to being an Ambassador and the duo are working this year’s festival together.

“I’ve been doing this 10 years,” Marilyn said. “This is Summer’s first time doing this. It’s such an honor. Everyone is so friendly and we just love it.”

Being an Ambassador seems to be a great way to bond not only with the community, but also with family. Marilyn and Summer aren’t the only family members that volunteer together. Husband and wife Denny and Jeri Braun have been volunteering at the National Cherry Festival together through most of their marriage.

“We just love doing it. These people are amazing, our community is amazing,” said Jeri, who has been an Ambassador for 36 years.

Mark Stuber, has also dedicated an impressive amount of time to volunteering at the National Cherry Festival.

“I just got my 45 year pin today. So the story is, 45 years ago I went to the frog and turtle races, which, unfortunately aren’t held anymore, but the gal who was workin’ there she was overwhelmed. She looked at me and said, ‘can you help?’ foolishly, I said ‘sure’ and here I am 45 years later!”

Mark used to teach fire prevention in schools, so the chance to help the kids have fun is one of his favorite aspects of being an Ambassador.

“It’s nice to make an experience for the kids, and it’s nice to get the adults to loosen up a bit. So many people are so involved in their work that if I can make them laugh, I’m happy.”

Although the kickoff party is filled with Ambassadors, directors and board members, there is no air of hierarchy at the party.

Meredith Dawes, National Cherry Festival board member, pours wine for Ambassadors looking for refreshment, and she told me about how she got involved with volunteering.

“I originally was a Cherry Princess, and then I got involved as a volunteer in 2009 working an event for fire safety for teens, and I continued with that until I became a board member in 2014.”

Meredith knows that this time of year can make the city feel hectic, but she handles it with grace and a positive attitude.

“I take a week off and I walk everywhere for the week. I don’t fight the traffic. I don’t get upset about people being here. I know there are going to be people from out of town, tourists who are not sure where they’re going and I want to help them so they can enjoy their time here.”

The commonality between all of the Ambassadors seems to be their happiness to serve a community they love, and the undeniable camaraderie between all of them, whether they’ve been working as an Ambassador for 1 year or for 50.

“It’s like a big family reunion,” Jan Phillips said. “The volunteers really are the backbone of the community.”

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